Atonement and the City: A Biblical Theology of the City (Part 11)

The Center of the Atonement

The atonement accomplishes so much. As we have seen with the Christus Victor model: The atonement overthrows the power of evil! Other models present the atonement as accomplishing other great things for us as well. The healing view teaches us that Jesus’ work on the cross puts an end to our ill and suffering. Joel Green and Mark Baker point out that there are a myriad of metaphors in Scripture to speak of Jesus’ work. They write:

In the New Testament, the saving effect of Jesus’ death is represented primarily through five constellations of images, each of which is borrowed from the public life of the ancient Mediterranean world: the court of law (e.g. justification), the world of commerce (e.g. redemption), personal relationships (e.g. reconciliation), worship (e.g. sacrifice), and the battleground (e.g. triumph over evil).[1]

Of course this is all true and Biblical, yet there is something missing that is, I believe, the very center of any understanding of the atonement. You see it missing even in Green and Baker’s assessment of the multi-faceted nature of the atonement. What I believe is at the very heart of a Biblical understanding of the work of Christ is what theologians term Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Let’s explain the term upfront, then I’ll defend why I believe it is the center of the doctrine of the atonement.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement can best be understood by looking at each of the terms of which it is composed. “Penal” refers to judgment. This term adds meaning to Christ’s death by saying that in dying Jesus bore a penalty. “Substitutionary” means that Jesus, in dying, took the place of another. He served as their substitute. Finally, the term “Atonement” is a theological term meaning “at-one-ment.” It’s an Old Testament term associated with God’s overlooking the sins of his people (Israel) as they made sacrifices in the temple. Under the New Covenant Atonement comes to mean the work that Christ did in earning our salvation by offering himself as a sacrifice. The Penal Substitutionary view, then, may succinctly be defined as follows: that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.[2]

Now when we discuss this doctrine we are assuming a few things: (1) That God is just; (2) That humans are sinful; (3) That God, because he is just and we are sinful, must punish us; (4) That Jesus bore the wrath of God in our stead. These are pretty big assumptions and they must be proved from Scripture if the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is to stand. So let us turn now to grounding these assumptions in the word of God.[3]


[1] Joel Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000. 23.

[2] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Wheaton: Crossway, 2007. 21.

[3] One might observe that I am assuming the authority and sufficiency of Scripture as well. You would be correct to say that, but since this whole paper is written from the perspective of a Biblical inerrantist, I will not defend that assumption. To do so would require a whole other type of paper.

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